mHealth Intelligence: Congress Eyes Funding, Support for Project ECHO Telehealth Programs

A new bill before the Senate aims to beef up the Project ECHO telemedicine model by proving more federal funding and technical assistance, potentially creating dozens of new connected care programs across the country.

The Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes Act of 2019 (ECHO 2019 Act), introduced this week by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), aims to build on both the 2016 bill of the same name and the telehealth program developed in 2003 at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.

“Technology has the potential to transform the way we train doctors and deliver health care,” Schatz, who also sponsored the 2016 bill, said in a press release. “Our bill will provide new federal funding that will help connect primary care providers in medically underserved areas with specialists at academic hubs, making it easier for medical professionals to access the continuing education they need to provide high-quality health care to the people who need it most.”

Project ECHO programs, now being implemented in dozens of locations across the country, use a virtual care platform to expand education and resources for remote healthcare providers. Most programs are based at a large health system or academic medical institution, which acts as the hub in a hub-and-spoke telemedicine network. From that site, organizers host weekly or monthly online sessions with any number of smaller, rural doctors and clinics, offering peer support, education and guidance from specialists to help them better care for their patients.

Programs have been developed to address a number of public health and chronic care issues that remote and rural care providers are struggling to address, including substance abuse treatment, diabetes care, pediatric care, behavioral health, smoking cessation, HIV and AIDS treatment and pregnancy care.

The 2016 ECHO Act called on the Health and Human Services Department to study the model and deliver a report to Congress. That report, presented this past February, “found that the available evidence on such models is modest but consistently shows positive effects, and recommended expanding the evidence base, including by directly funding evaluation and technical assistance,” according to Schatz and his colleagues.

The 2019 bill calls on Congress to provide more funding for new and existing programs, to be used for digital health technology, support, training, data collection and evaluation.

“We have an opportunity to expand access to health care for Americans with the help of technology. This bill is about connecting rural and underserved areas in Virginia and across the nation with specialty care so we can better help those with substance use disorders, chronic diseases, and other complex health care conditions,” Kaine – whose state includes a Project ECHO program developed by Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech – said in the press release.

“With 82 percent of our communities in Alaska not connected to a road system, innovation is essential as we work to ensure quality healthcare across the state,” added Murkowski. “As medicine and technology evolve, we must ensure that our healthcare professionals, even in the most rural areas, have access to the continued education that will allow them to provide the best care possible. I have been inspired by the hard work of Alaskans who have already used the ECHO model to expand access to resources on behavioral health, pain management, and developmental disabilities for people across Alaska. I’m proud to help lead legislation that will expand access to specialized care and improve the quality of primary care in medically underserved communities through technology-driven, collaborative learning.”

By:  Eric Wicklund
Source: mHealth Intelligence